I’m very doubtful about the concept of genuine community on the Internet, and even more doubtful about whether the attempt is a good thing. Eugene Peterson points out somewhere that a genuine church is a collection of diverse individuals whose unity in Christ somehow manages to triumph over their diversity in almost everything else (age, sex, race, economic circumstances, education, political views, theological views etc. etc.). In contrast, he says, a sect is a community of the like-minded. This, by the way, is one of my big disagreements with churches that ‘stream’ worship services to meet the ‘preferences’ of different groups (age and otherwise): quite apart from the consumer-mentality this teaches, it also tends to produce sects, rather than true communities.
Now a so-called ‘Internet community’ almost always evolves into a sect, in Peterson’s classification. Internet communities tend to form around blogs and tend to reflect the views of the blogger. Not surprisingly, the majority of commentators on any particular blog will be in general agreement with the views of the blogger, and those who are not in agreement quickly find themselves ‘ganged up on’ by the rest (for the record, I have been on both sides of this experience!). Most blogs quickly develop an ‘orthodoxy’ that is rarely challenged by the regulars, which makes these blogs a very comfortable place for the members of the ‘community’. In fact, for some people, they are far more comfortable than the real, flesh-and-blood communities they actually live in. It’s not uncommon for commentators to say things like ‘you people are the only ones who really understand me’ and ‘I get more support here than I do at St. So-and-So’s’.
But of course, the catch is that no one knows if what you are presenting on the blog, either as the author or as a commentator, is the real ‘you’. As Marianne says in the latest BBC production of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘It is what we do, rather than what we say or feel, that makes us who we are’. And in the world of the Internet, no one knows who we really are. I have been described in very generous terms by some people I’ve ‘met’ in the blogosphere, and of course this is very gratifying to my ego and I like it as much as the next person. But the fact is that no one I ‘meet’ on the Internet really knows me. They know what I say, they meet the persona I create for myself (how telling it is that pseudonyms, screen names, and avatars are so popular in the blogosphere!), but they don’t meet the real ‘me’. And, try as I might, it’s almost impossible to avoid creating a deceptively rosy persona for oneself in the anonymous world of the blogosphere. If I’m not careful, I might even begin to believe in it myself! As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’.
I might give the impression on this blog (and in the comments I leave on other blogs) of being a good, conscientious priest, but of course you, my readers, don’t really know whether or not that’s true (unless you happen to be past or present parishioners of mine!). I might give the impression of being a loving husband and father and grandfather, but in order to be really sure that’s the case, you’d need to consult my wife, my children, and my grandson. I might give the impression of being a patient and caring and compassionate person, but unless you see me on a regular basis, and not just when I’m trying to sound good, you have no way of knowing whether or not that is the case.
Internet ‘communities’ can be very gullible and very deceptive. I have not been in the habit of filling my blog with stories about difficulties in my parish or my relationship with those who are ‘over me’ in the ministry – mainly because I think those issues should be worked out face to face with those who are directly involved, not gossiped about to disembodied people with screen names and avatars in the anonymous world of the Internet. But the real problem, of course, is that there are two sides to every story, and unless a blogger has an unusual level of honesty and self-knowledge, it’s only natural that what you get from them is their side of the story. The pastor who is having difficulty with his or her congregation will usually give the impression of being the patient and compassionate shepherd (or the brave and visionary leader, depending on the culture of the church!); it’s the congregation, of course, who are unappreciative or unsupportive or unsympathetic or unresponsive or just downright unChristian. If the blog is being run by a member of the congregation, then, naturally, you’ll get the opposite viewpoint. A priest having trouble with their bishop will unavoidably tell the story in terms that make it clear what an unfeeling ecclesiocrat the bishop actually is (and some clerical blogs are anonymous precisely for the reason of allowing the cleric to blow off steam like this). Unless one of the regular commentators is actually part of the situation and is willing to blow the whistle from time to time and say, “Look, that’s not actually the whole story…”, the others are none the wiser.
Experience teaches us that life is messy, and people are not just one-dimensional. There are very rarely goodies and baddies; there are just ordinary flawed human beings, people who get some things right and some things wrong, people who are sometimes loving and sometimes selfish. There are not usually ‘haters’ and ‘fascists’ and ‘revisionists’ and ‘leftists’; there are human beings trying to pay their mortgages and do a reasonable job at work and be better parents and love God as best they know how. And of course, when it comes to the real flesh-and-blood people in my family, and my parish, and my circle of friends, I see that flawed and yet admirable humanity most clearly and am most likely to cut people some slack because of it (or, at other times, pluck up my courage and challenge them).
It’s more difficult to do that in the blogosphere, because there we don’t encounter the real multi-dimensional persons who exist outside the ‘matrix’. We encounter what they present to the world, but we have no way of knowing how real their persona actually is, and we will never know that until we wash dishes with them, or play music with them, or receive communion regularly with them, or get our hands dirty cleaning up the churchyard with them. Until that happens, we’d be wise to remind ourselves that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people we’re talking to online, and there’s probably a lot they’re not telling us (intentionally or unintentionally) in the stories they share.